An environmental group that lodged a High Court bid to stop sand extraction has said a decision allowing it continue until an appeal is heard was 'a major blow to the environment'.
Friends of the Earth has long argued that former Environment Minister Mark H Durkan should have issued a stop notice on sand extraction, which has been taking place for decades without planning permission.
Durkan issued an enforcement notice after the issues around sand extraction were raised by the Mail in April 2015, which meant five sand traders removing millions of tonnes of sand from the bottom of Lough Neagh every year were given a month to stop - an enforcement they subsequently appealed.
Under European law, Friends of the Earth argued that the "precautionary principle" should have been employed and sand extraction stopped in the sensitive area unless it was proven to present no risk.
Lough Neagh is protected by numerous environmental designations. It is an Area of Special Scientific Interest, A Special Protection Area under the European Union Birds Directive and a Ramsar site protected under the international Ramsar Convention.
Following the sand traders' appeal to Durkan's enforcement notice in June last year, the case was passed to the Planning Appeals Commission, which gave the sand traders and Lord Shaftesbury - who owns the bed of the lough and sells the sand to traders - until October to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment on their work.
They asked for, and were granted almost a year's extension for this work. The Mail discovered that six days before their October 31 deadline they had asked for another two-week extension, bringing them up to November 14, 2016.
Meanwhile Friends of the Earth NI took a case to the High Court in Belfast challenging the minister's decision not to stop extraction - which the Judge ruled against.
The court heard that Durkan was advised twice by senior officials to halt sand extraction, but chose instead to issue an enforcement notice, which is open to appeal and allowed the traders to continue working.
Lough Neagh Fishermen told the Mail last year that fish and eel stocks have dropped dramatically, and it has also been reported that the diving duck population on the lough has fallen by 75%.
The sand traders argue that their work poses no environmental risk and have spent £500k on an Environmental Statement for their planning appeal.
But a Queens scientist interviewed by the Mail, said he could not include sand extraction in any of their studies on birds around the lough as the data needed was not available.
FOENI has also said that prior to the case, the Department of Environment accepted there could be many significant effects on the lough from dredging in a document called an EIA determination, in which over 20 likely significant environmental effects were identified including pollution, disturbance of sand bars, disturbance to wildlife, depletion of a finite resource, sediment deposition from barges, traffic movements, and impacts on other industries such as fishing and tourism.
Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland Director, James Orr said: "This decision is a major blow to Northern Ireland’s environment. This vitally important wildlife site is supposed to be protected under international law – if we can’t protect these precious areas, then nowhere is safe.
"The Northern Ireland government must put in place a system to sustainably manage the Lough and its sand resource as soon as possible. This is surely in everyone interests - including the sand industry."
"Our legal team will study this judgement very carefully to see what grounds we may have to appeal this decision."